Massachusetts Sheriff’s Office Has Immunity Under FLSA

In Alden v. Maine, 527 U.S. 706 (1999), the Supreme Court held that state governments have immunity from lawsuits filed by employees under the Fair Labor Standards Act. The Court based its decision on the Eleventh Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which gives states immunity from private lawsuits unless they have waived their “sovereign immunity” from being sued.

When a group of corrections officers employed by the Essex County, Massachusetts Sheriff’s Department sued the County for FLSA violations, a federal trial court had to decide whether the Eleventh Amendment immunity described in Alden applied to the County. Critical in the Court’s decision was the fact that in 1999, the Massachusetts legislature abolished the governments of six counties, including Essex County. Under the legislation, all of Essex County’s “functions, duties and responsibilities…including, but not limited to, the operation and management of the county jail and house of correction…were transferred to the Commonwealth.” In addition, the sheriff of each abolished county became “an employee of the Commonwealth with salary to be paid by the Commonwealth.” Employees in the sheriffs’ departments were “transferred to the Commonwealth with no impairment of employment rights held immediately before the transfer date without interruption of service, without impairment of seniority, retirement or other rights of employees, without reduction in compensation or salary grade and without change in union representation.”

The Court found that under these unusual circumstances, the County was shielded from liability in FLSA lawsuits. The Court found that “it is plain to see that the 1999 Act structured the Sheriff’s Department to share in the Commonwealth’s sovereign immunity. The language of the 1999 legislation clearly states that a fundamental change was made to the status of the County and the Sheriff’s Department. Essex County was abolished and all of its functions and liabilities, including those of the Sheriff’s Department, reverted to the Commonwealth. In addition, the Sheriff and all the Department’s employees became employees of the Commonwealth.

“Nowhere does the 1999 Act indicate that the Department would remain or become a separate entity going forward despite the legislation’s sweeping changes. Administration of a public safety entity is a core governmental function. This function points toward the conclusion that the Department is an arm of the Commonwealth.”

The employees argued that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts lacked significant control over the Department, citing the Sheriff’s status as an elected official, his power of appointment and discipline over employees, his retention of administrative and operational control, his authority to contract with third parties and bargain with employees over their working conditions, and his ability to generate revenue by serving civil process. The Court was not convinced, finding: “To be sure, the Sheriff enjoys some independence in carrying out the Department’s mandate, but the features of that independence identified by the employees do not necessarily lead to the conclusion that the Department is excluded from the Commonwealth’s sovereign immunity. Ultimately, the employees have failed to demonstrate that the Commonwealth exerts any less control over the Sheriff’s Department than it does over other state agencies that are manifestly arms of the state.”

Gallo v. Essex County Sheriff’s Department, 2011 WL 1155385 (D. Mass. 2011).